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Beijing opening night lures 15 percent of world

BEIJING (Reuters) - As China hoped, the world did tune in for the start of the Beijing Olympics with various polls on Monday estimating about one billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, watched the opening ceremony.

The four-and-a-half-hour spectacular drew a record audience for an Olympics opening because it was watched by a majority of Chinese viewers, fired up after seven years of preparation and campaigns about the national importance of hosting the Games.

Various pollsters issued different viewer estimates but suggested about 842 million of China’s 1.3 billion population watched the ceremony and were joined by other audiences around the world to take total viewer numbers to around one billion.

British broadcaster the BBC said the Olympics opening attracted an impressive audience of about five million in Britain and forecast about 30 million would watch some of the Games.

“The many millions who tuned in for the opening ceremony are a good omen for that; and the encouraging news continued with the audience figures for the first full day of action,” wrote the director of BBC Sport, Roger Mosey, in a blog.

Viewer interest is key for Britain as London is hosting the next Summer Olympics in 2012 and high viewer numbers will led to stronger sponsorship and advertising interest.

These numbers looked set to put Beijing’s viewer figures way ahead of the Athens Games in 2004 which attracted 3.9 billion viewers in total and Sydney in 2000 with 3.6 billion.

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The huge Chinese interest ensured record viewer numbers for the opening ceremony that involved 10,000 performers, 2,008 drummers and a dramatic sky-walking finale as former gymnast Ni Ling lit the Olympic cauldron.

Competing poll data showed that between 63 and 69 percent of China’s total audience watched the opening, beating the 51-58 percent of viewers who watch the Chinese New Year gala each year.

Market researcher, The Nielsen Company, said 63 percent, or 393 million of Chinese it polls in 14 TV markets, watched the opening ceremony designed by film director Zhang Yimou.

But data from CSM Media Research, a leading market research company in China, found the event drew a market share of 69 percent, representing 842 million of China’s population.

U.S. network NBC, a unit of General Electric Co, which paid nearly $900 million for exclusive U.S. broadcasting rights, held off showing the event for 12 hours to reach a primetime audience.

But the gamble paid off, as word of the spectacular show saturated U.S. media on Friday and lured 34.2 million viewers.

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“The Olympic Opening Ceremony captivated the American public in unprecedented numbers for a non-U.S. Olympics,” said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, in a statement. “It was a magical and memorable spectacle and a great way to start the Beijing Olympics.”

The Beijing ceremony was watched in whole or part by 7.8 million Australians, according to the Seven Network.

Entertainment industry magazine The Hollywood Reporters said in France, nearly one in two viewers, or 4.4 million, watched the event while in Italy, RAI drew a 49 percent share of the market, reaching 5.5 million viewers.

In Germany, public broadcaster ARD estimated only 7.72 million people watched the opening ceremony live, a 52 percent market share, which was way below the 30 million people who watched the France v. Italy 2006 soccer World Cup final.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

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